The Casino of Mont-Parnas
by Andreas Angelidakis
A building lies wounded on a mountain range, tangled up in tubes, wires and construction paraphernalia. The tubes run down the hill, connecting this networked ruin to a city in crisis. The ruin is the Casino de Mont Parnas and the city is Athens. How could a building designed for luxury and pleasure end up in such a state of disarray? How could a city in a prime location on the Mediterranean screw up so badly?*
Cold War Billboards
Athens became a big city after the Second World War, when Greece received the benefits of the generous Marshall Plan from the United States. The exchange was quite simple for countries like Greece: join NATO and you shall receive lots of money. With this money you will modernise your country and become a good example of western capitalism. And how do you modernise a country? You build fancy buildings, connect them with fancy roads, maybe add a slick airline, and of course luxury resorts. Resorts were a particularly useful actor in the soap opera of Cold War politics, especially in countries like Greece and Turkey, because they stood so close to the border with the USSR. You could almost make out the lights of the Istanbul Hilton from Odessa, or so the legend goes.
The official architecture of the Marshall Plan was Americanised modernism, because it represented everything that the American dream stood for: modern efficiency built with elegant technology resulting in fantastic comfort. The buildings it produced were not just buildings, but propaganda billboards for a western way of life. A billboard for the nation’s economy.
The Hotel of Mont Parnas was meant to be an exclusive resort overlooking the city of Athens. Arabs would flock to Mont Parnas for their winter holidays, because it was closer than Gstaad and cheaper than Geneva. The hotel was the dream project of prime minister Kostas Karamanlis, who commissioned its architect Pavlos Milonas, ordering him to spare no luxury. This building would be the perfect advertisement for the new found and Marshall-planned economic power of Greece, and so it had to be perfect. Perfection comes at a cost, and the hotel apparently tripled its planned budget before construction was finished. Local newspapers protested about the scandalous amount spent on top of Mount Parnitha, and everyone waited for the inauguration. “Fait vos Jeux!” shouted Karamanlis to the crème de la crème of Athens society and politics, as he cut the pink ribbon to his pet project, the luxurious Hotel of Mont Parnas. The crowd seemed a bit dazed and confused, maybe from the long drive up the mountain? The atmosphere was a bit tense at the opening, as the glamorous guests tried to locate the view they had driven so far to enjoy. The layout of the public areas was confusing and the outdoor patios too windy and too few. The architect Pavlos Mylonas must have been disappointed by the first reaction to his masterpiece, because that same night he accidentally drove off the road on his return to Athens. The architect’s accident was widely reported in the next day’s papers.
That evening proved prophetic, and the building couldn’t get a lucky break. Some particularly harsh reviews in the architectural press called it plainly mediocre and badly planned. They said that the hotel did not have a clear identity; it was not a proper mountain resort because it did not provide a place from where you could enjoy the mountain. They said that such a building should not sit high up on pilotis but closer to the ground, so you could be closer to nature. The accommodation felt like the small and efficient rooms of a hotel in the city centre, and the swimming pool was clearly designed for a seaside palace, but not for a mountain chalet. Interestingly, one of the reviews mentions that this was not a real place of luxurious comfort but a building designed as the image of a resort.
Designing a building as an image of a building would not enter the architectural discourse until Learning from Las Vegas was published in the late sixties. In the still innocent fifties, this must have been a case of accidental postmodernism by the architect: a building designed as a Cold War propaganda billboard ends up being accused of being an image rather than a real building. What would you expect? But even if the post-modernity of the billboard building was accidental, its architectural influence was evident to the city that was growing at the foot of the mountain. As with many examples of southern Marshall Plan development, the people copied the masterpieces as best they could, and came up with their own, adhoc versions of southern modernism. One could argue that the Polykatoikia, the Greek apartment building-type that makes up 80% of Athens, is just a cheap version of Americanised modernism. Mont Parnas was working, if only as an architectural billboard. Mont Parnas was a bit like the Hollywood sign for the sprawling city of Athens.
Once the building was completed and photographed, posters were promptly printed, proving the prowess of the new Greek economy. The poster features the Hotel of Mont Parnas next to the Parthenon, the Xenia Resort of Nafplio and the Theatre of Epidaurus. Interestingly enough, three out of four buildings on the poster are located on top of mountains. The image that concludes the composition is the jagged line of the ever expanding Greek economy, a financial mountain range diagram, on top of which more monuments would be built. Or not.
Soon after the poster was published, the hotel went bankrupt, as it turned out that the beach was a more interesting destination. Now the Karamanlis government was stuck with a wildly overpriced emblem of success that turned out to be a failure. To save the situation they turned it into a state funded school of tourism, which did not fare much better and closed its door due to lack of students. In a fast forward through history, the unlucky billboard building racked up a series of losses. It got turned into a glamorous casino during the Colonels’ dictatorship, for which it became famous. It was the first and only casino that Greek citizens could gamble in. To enter you had to have a tax statement that proved you could afford it. Civil servants were not allowed to gamble, for fear of massive mistreatments of public funds. Still, the casino proved too expensive to run and went bankrupt, only to be sold off to offshore companies, before returning to the ministry of tourism’s possession, where it was rebranded and so forth.
In the late nineties an earthquake shook Athens and did a fair bit of damage to the neglected resort. Worst hit was the hotel’s fancy nightclub, whose dance floor cantilevered like a flying saucer over Athens. During the quake, the famous dance floor collapsed, even though it had been originally advertised as a feat of engineering genius. The hotel’s bad luck culminated in the fire of 2007, which burned up a large part of Mount Parnitha, leaving the financial beacon of the sixties looking like a scarecrow of the noughties.
Now to compare the history of this unlucky building to the economy: the hotel was designed to represent and advertise a South economy that guided a South architecture. This southern country, whose gambling governments borrowed heavily from the reigning superpowers, had inflated its stock market like a glossy pop-up casino operation, having previously managed to grab an invitation into the eurozone by faking the paperwork and lying about its finances. And its architecture was adapted to every legislative tweak in order to cost less and make more – buildings that were nothing but cheap copies of the originals, cut and pasted to cost even less. But this was not a copy of the Chinese variety, where an original is almost perfectly reproduced in endless examples: no, this was an adhoc, artisan-level copying, where an original from Paris (Le Corbusier) is taken to the local seamstress to disassemble and remake with cheaper materials, less fabric and poor quality concrete, deviating so far from what it was meant to reproduce as to somehow be an almost original creation.
Greece has had a gambling, lying and cheating economy that went out on a date with a fast and easy, cheap and available architecture.
The casino of Mont Parnas’s future seems to promise even weirder developments. At the beginning of 2010 the building’s next overhaul was announced: even though it is a listed building the hotel would be demolished, redesigned and rebuilt “in the spirit of modernism” by one of the movements’ last remaining practitioners, Nikos Valsamakis. In the published rendering, the hotel looks more like a generic nineties resort, a sort of budget version of Amman worldwide luxury hotels, scaled down for the Greek banana reality. But should one even try to build a modernist building in 2010? Iconic modernist buildings have been popping up in China recently, as part of their copycat capitalism, and one can imagine such a pastiche reconstruction taking place in Las Vegas too, but Greece has always traded on its apparent authenticity. And what could this remade building represent, in the current crisis?
Perhaps sense is not what a southern country is about, and maybe it’s time for its architecture to have fun and enjoy the crisis. If there is no hope left, maybe it’s best to party. As I drive up to the Mont Parnas casino for yet another site visit, I notice a graffiti on some roadside ruin: “Bomb the Casino!”, and somehow this stays in my mind as I arrive at the strange networked ruin of today. The building is now almost unrecognisable, a strange collage of its former self. Isobox modules have been added on and green corrugated cladding covers parts of the shell, while older additions have been revealed in the process. Now the Cold War modernist ‘masterpiece’ looks like the rest of Greece: a random, almost folkloric addition of ruins and shacks pasted onto the old modern facade, while pieces of semi-demolished concrete parts hang off its skeletal corpse. Cables and multi-coloured infrastructure tubing run down the hill seemingly connecting this half-dead building’s body to the rest of the city of Athens. I wonder what the tubes carry? Is it electricity, or water, sewage or euros running down the hill? The ruin is perfectly networked with the city sinking in crisis, entangled physically, financially and even mentally, just like the economy it was always meant to represent.
The casino apparently still operates, though mostly at night when it’s lit up with little bright lights, and the view from inside has been manicured to photoshop perfection. I keep thinking about the graffiti that urged us to blow up the whole thing. An explosion is by far the most radical crisis for a building: maybe we should explode the economy too? If the post-capitalist reality is just a cycle of crisis and regeneration, if capitalism really feeds on crisis just to regenerate itself, could an explosion really be the crisis the casino needs?
Suddenly, I imagine fragments of the modernist building flying up in the air – this could be a benign explosion after all – and softly landing on the ancient mountain of Parnas amongst the now overgrown pines. Maybe when Greece has recovered, we’ll discover those casino fragments and make little mountain cabins, combining the modernist shards with wooden appendages, like the simple forest huts you find in the North. The deer and the birds of the mountain would live there, maybe some people too. These forest shelters would be disconnected from the electricity grid, they would collect rainwater on their own, they would be the artisanal follies we can fantastically escape to from Greece’s current casino reality.
* This text examines the curiously interlinked history of the casino and the city it served, considering the ways they both gambled away their fortunes and the ways buildings can become billboards for both success and failure.