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MONUMENTA: Documenting 19th and 20th century architectural heritage in Greece

One of my favorite pastimes during the COVID-19 confinement in Greece has been walking around to the spots of my city I love the most and enjoying the view, uninterrupted by other passersby, cars, or the noises of other activities happening around.

In the calmness of the empty city, one can best appreciate the long history of Athens, which carries numerous reminders of its centuries-deep heritage.

Ancient and Byzantine structures coexist next to neoclassical and eclectic edifices and buildings from the inter- and post-war eras, which often go overlooked as we go about our lives. Growing up, we learn about the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BCE and the splendid architecture of Parthenon, but not much attention is given to our more recent urban heritage. MONUMENTA has managed to change that.

Over the past seven years, they have led a meticulous effort to document the 19th and 20th century architectural landscape of Athens. This labor-intensive survey consisted of not only identifying and registering the structures, but also collecting relevant information and documentation in an effort to safeguard each building’s story and the collective memory of the city. This includes architectural designs, old photos of the families that lived there, collecting stories about the life in the neighborhood from residents—all the small things that create the identity and personality of Athens and its various neighborhoods.

This meant engaging closely with communities, organizing neighborhood meetings at local coffee shops (the traditional meeting spots for locals), talking about the life in the old days with elderly residents or exchanging stories with younger ones, and organizing guided tours of the surrounding streets—in some cases provided by these same neighborhood ambassadors. In an effort to raise awareness about our modern—19th and 20th century—architectural heritage and the importance of preserving it, a series of educational programs in schools and public talks have also been organized. This initiative has attracted interest around Greece and has been introduced to other cities as well, including Thessaloniki, Kalamata, Naxos, and more.

In March, a Facebook group was created to showcase a different beautiful building every day as a way of offering a small window of escape from the COVID-19 confinement, but the group has transformed into an unexpected crowdsourcing tool for the collection and documentation of buildings all over Greece.

The MONUMENTA project has become a treasury of our modern architectural heritage, recording any and all structures from the past two centuries, not just the ones currently listed in the official Ministry registry. It has also become a resource of our urban collective memory, capturing rare snapshots of city life past. And in this process, it has made us all researchers of our neighborhoods, our city, and offered us a delightful journey into their stories and history.

If you want to know where the best dessert used to be served in the neighborhood of Agios Thomas, you know where to ask. I’ll be sure to look for it the next time I walk out of the office and pass by Kerasountos Street.

Anna Maria Kosmoglou
SNF Program Officer, Athens

Read an article in I Kathimerini about the Facebook group crowdsourcing information about historical buildings in Greece, and visit the MONUMENTA project’s official Facebook page.