The troubled tale of a sleeping giant – The new National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens

Article at Uncube Magazine, November 2013

The Building of the Old Fix Factory

The troubled history of a key masterwork of one Greece’s most significant post-war modernist architects, Takis Zenetos’ FIX brewery building in Athens, might just be about to have a happy ending. Due to open as the new National Museum of Contemporary Art in March next year, Cristina Ampatzidou traces a tortuous road of disuse, mutilation, delays and lawsuits that have dogged the life of this huge structure.

The FIX beer brewery was established in Athens in 1863 and 30 years later it moved to an area south of the Acropolis, which at that point was outside the historical centre and largely not as yet built-up. The factory thrived at that location for more than 60 years, until the 1950s when the Fix family, who owned it, decided to construct new premises and appointed Takis Zenetos to design them.

Zenetos (1926 – 1977) is a very distinctive architect of post-war Greek modernism. Known for the many housing projects he completed, as well as several important industrial buildings, his work is not characterised by a coherent visual language but by meticulous attention to functionality, flexibility and clarity of construction – as well as daring form. Zenetos was also a visionary urban planner. His ideas culminated in his speculative avant-garde Electronic Urbanism project which he developed to show how technology, beyond just the architecture, could address the urban problems of a megalopolis, by using information technologies to create new frameworks of thinking: through tele-education, tele-work and tele-communications.

In the 1950s the area around the factory was still mostly small single or two-storey houses, which were only then beginning to be replaced by taller buildings. Amongst these Zenetos created a building in scale like a local cathedral, much bigger than anything else in its surroundings. It was akin to a reclining skyscraper, lying next to the Ilisos River, which at that time still openly flowed where now there is just a congested street. The intense horizontality of the façade was further amplified by long openings within it, creating a dynamic street-level experience. The continuous glass walls on the ground floor opened up the working spaces inside to the city, whilst at night making the building look as if it was floating on a sea of light.

However successful and admired by the architecture world, by the 1970s, with the area now fully built-up, the factory had to move out of the building to a new location, outside the city. And there, in perfect condition, the building has remained, empty ever since. Well almost perfect. In 1994, during the construction of a metro line, the building was expropriated and part of it demolished to make space for the exit of a metro station. The symmetry of the façade was thus lost forever and the elegance of the building’s proportions compromised.

Two years after the opening of the metro station in 2000, an agreement was signed to lease the building to the newly established National Museum of Contemporary Art. However this marked only the beginning of another tormented journey concerning its renovation. The 2002 architectural competition was won by 3SK Stylianidis Architects, Tim Ronalds Architects and I. Mouzakis & Partners Architects, but since then the project has been through several technical and legal adventures. Problems began at the tender stage, when one participating construction company had their bid disqualified and then filed a lawsuit against the museum contesting this. Another contractor who had not been successful in their bid, then contested the result of the tender process and also filed a lawsuit. All this contributed to a lengthy delay before construction could even start. But then, once the winning developer was finally confirmed and appointed, asbestos was discovered in the building and this forced all construction work to stop until it was removed. Following this, the first developer tasked with the construction failed to deliver the work to schedule and their contract was cancelled. They then contested this dismissal from the job in another long and ultimately unsuccessful court-case. Finally after a subsequent tender, a new developer, the original third runner up in the first round, was contracted for the work. So only now, a few weeks ago, after years of delay, the new façades have finally been revealed!

The much awaited unveiling was greeted with lots of excitement but also criticism in equal measure. While the main façade giving on to Syngrou Avenue has kept its original materials and organisation, the one facing Kallirois Avenue has been covered in stone. According to the architects, this gesture, portraying the topography of the riverbed, is a poetic reminder of the river that used to flow there. The glass wall on the ground floor has been maintained and reveals an interior space that compensates for the tremendous lack of open public space in the surrounding city: a 30m high foyer will allow visitors to enjoy the original Zenetos façade, this time from the inside, as part of the “archaeology” of the site. The ground floor and basement will host temporary exhibitions, while the permanent collection will be on the 3rd and 4th floors. Offices and administration, together with a library and workshops will occupy the first floor and a restaurant the top floor. But the experience of these will have to wait until March 2014 when the interior is due to be revealed, as well as a new labyrinthine sculpture garden on the roof, with views out over the city.

With Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum nearby, the neighbouring Onassis Cultural Center and the Planetarium, and the forthcoming National Library and Opera House by Renzo Piano down the road, Syngrou Avenue is slowly transforming into a significant cultural axis. The museum might not be ready just yet, but when it is, it will be another optimistic step towards the urban regeneration of Athens, one that the city needs so much at the moment.

Read the full article at uncube.