The 10-storey hotel at 5 Falirou street in Athens was always going to stand out. Built to impress, its handsomely modernist wood-panelled facade added a contemporary touch to the streetscape of the otherwise lacklustre popular Makriyanni area beneath the Acropolis.
But as local residents watched it go up over the winter, they became ever more concerned. By February, when it had reached 31.5 metres, the hotel was the tallest building in the neighbourhood and had started to impede what had once been uninterrupted views of the Parthenon and the 5000BC monument’s fortified walls.
“Suddenly, it was taller than the new Acropolis museum itself,” said Irini Frezadou, pointing to the building from her rooftop down the road. “This is meant to be an area of archaeological protection. Our zoning laws are partly to blame but a construction of such gigantic dimensions was never approved by the central archaeological council.”
Battle lines are being drawn in the skies above Athens’ historic city centre from the rooftops of locals galvanised into action by the prospect of multi-storey buildings being constructed within metres of the Periclean masterpiece, one of the world’s premier heritage sites.
With word spreading of a “wall of high-rise hotels” being planned around the Acropolis in the coming years, Frezadou, a Swiss-trained architect and urban planner, is spearheading a campaign to stop the building spree, initiating a petition on the online activist network Avaaz that has already collected upwards of 25,000 signatures.
“Clearly, what we need urgently in the name of sustainability is new building and urban planning rules,” she said.
Frezadou does not have to look far to get angry. The grassy plot behind her own apartment block has been designated for an even bigger hotel with three underground parking floors and a pool garden on top.
Activists have gone to Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to ask for permits for approval to be revoked.
“We are not taking any chances,” said Andreas Papapetropoulos, the lawyer representing the campaigners, adding that hundreds have signed a class action suit brought before the court in recent weeks. “We’re not absurdist, we recognise Athens has a need for good hotels, but not at the expense of our greatest monument. We will campaign for the building on Falirou street not to be demolished but certainly reduced in height.”
Far from being a hub for violent anti-austerity protests synonymous with the country’s economic crisis, its reputation not that long ago, Athens is in the grip of an unprecedented tourist boom.
Makriyanni, like Koukaki, its adjacent neighbourhood south of the Acropolis, are go-to places for the ever-increasing Airbnb tourists flocking to a city that is expected to host more than 5 million visitors this year – nearly half of the country’s entire population.
But the influx has come at a cost. Increasingly, international investors are taking advantage of controversial construction regulations passed at the height of the crisis that permit bigger and taller buildings if they meet “green” standards.
None know this better than Elliniki Etairia, a conservation watchdog housed in a neo-classical building in Plaka, Athens’ oldest continuously inhabited district, directly below the ancient citadel. “When we heard that buildings were going up that were obscuring views of the Acropolis, the symbol of democracy, we immediately saw it as a national emergency and began bombarding every government office that we could,” said Lydia Carras, the organisation’s president.
“There are certain views, not many in the world, that are views of identity, and the Parthenon is one of them that at all costs has to be preserved.”
Unlike other major European metropolises, Athens escaped the phenomenon of the high-rise precisely because of the fear that multi-storey blocks would overshadow the capital’s greatest showpiece. As a result only one, a 28-storey bloc known as the Athens Tower, was constructed under the curatorship of Greece’s then-military dictatorship in the 1970s.
Under pressure, Athens’ leftist government announced this week that the new construction licences in the archaeological buffer zone around the Acropolis would be temporarily suspended. Pledging to create a committee to review zoning laws in the area, it said permits for buildings higher than 17.5 metres would be banned for the next year.
Insisting on everyone’s right to view the monument, Greece’s culture minister, Myrsini Zorba, acknowledged the protests had to be taken into account. “A view is a cultural good and in no circumstance can it be turned into a privilege for the few. We ought to be responsive to the protest of civil society so that rule of law and a sense of justice are upheld.”
However, privately culture ministry officials admit they are in a bind, hamstrung by laws that allow for taller buildings. “As archaeologists we are called to work in the ground, not up in the air,” said one. “This was legislation passed by the environment ministry.”
Across Europe, conservationists are watching closely and they insist they will hold the Greek government to account. “This is an extremely important battle that has to be won,” said Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović, the secretary general of Europa Nostra, widely regarded as the voice of cultural heritage in Europe.
“We are not against new buildings of contemporary architecture but they have to respect the heritage settings of European cities. A view of the Acropolis is the most miraculous of any to be had,” she told the Guardian. “Fortunately, civil society has taken a very strong stance. What we expect now is a very clear signal from national authorities that not everything is for sale.”
• This article was amended on 11 March 2019 to correctly credit the main image as being provided to Helena Smith by the Akropoli-Makriyanni SOS petition.