How to document a slow extinction
Ashley Denny Petch
I moved to Athens three months ago and already I'm grieving. I’m grieving the illusion of permanence. Architectural permanence, to be precise.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus tells us that the world is constantly in flux. Nothing is permanent. Embrace the freedom of ephemerality. Έλα ρε, Heraclitus! I just got here, and things are already changing. Can’t we just stand still for a moment?
Periptera are the cause of my present grief. No sooner did I arrive in Greece and witness these lovely little structures than I learned that they were not long for this world.
A periptero (περίπτερο)1 is a Greek phenomenon: a neighbourhood kiosk that sells anything and everything, but most essentially cigarettes and newspapers, the fundamentals of Greek life. These kiosk structures are ubiquitous throughout Athens, and all Greek cities, towns and islands.
Architecturally speaking, a periptero is a portico surrounded by columns. ‘Peri’ means to surround, and ‘Ptero’ is a wing, or the external colonnade of a structure.
All periptera start from the same small framework - a central cabin measuring 1.3 X 1.5 metres. From here, their shape and form differ widely, expanding and protruding far out onto the sidewalk, sprouting additions like fridges, freezers, magazine shelves, etc. Whatever final form it takes, the entire area is then covered in a protective overhead canvas, shielding the goods from rain, wind and bird droppings. The borders of a periptero are irregular; its membrane permeable, of course.
Like an astronaut in a shuttle, the shopkeeper (peripterades) surveys their kiosk from inside the central cabin; they’re surrounded by windows on 3 sides and a rear door hatch. There is only room for one in the central cabin.
It’s 4am on a Sunday, and you’re in Omonoia Square. What do you need? Tobacco? Beer? Batteries? Filters? Condoms? Stamps? Phone Cards? Candy? Ice cream? ό, τι θέλεις. The Periptero has it. (Btw, it’s 4am on a Sunday, and you’re in Omonoia Square. It might be time to make better choices.)
Periptera are endemic to Greece. Their form reflects their function. Their function reflects the cultural particularities of the country. Periptera are an essential element of one’s neighborhood. A periptero is a gathering point: it’s where you go for local gossip, to look for odd jobs or flats to rent, to discuss politics or sports or the weather.
A periptero is a public safety tool - the peripterades are the eyes on the street.2 Put simply, periptera function as a third place. They help create community.
Can we identify the periptero to one essential functionality? Yes, absolutely. Greeks love to smoke. Some buy pre-made cigarettes, but due in part to the cost, it’s much more common for people to hand roll their cigarettes. The leather tobacco pouch, the delicate rolling paper, the fluidity of the motions: it’s an alluring ritual to observe. Sure it kills you, but there’s simply no denying that smoking looks cool.
It’s impossible to overstate how important cigarettes and tobacco are for the economic life of periptera. Up until fairly recently, a periptero was the only place to buy tobacco. This is a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.
The first periptero in Athens appeared in 1911 on Panepistimiou Street, a main artery in the centre of the city. It was a small wooden canopy that sold tobacco and newspapers. In the decade that followed, periptera began popping up all across the country.
In 1922, the Hellenic Ministry of Defense formalized these structures by granting ownership licenses to injured war veterans, in need of work in the aftermath of the series of wars from 1912 - 1921 (see Balkan Wars, WW1 & Greco-Turkish War). The license was restricted to the individual and could not be sold or leased. It could, however, be inherited by the veteran’s family once they had passed away.
Perhaps the ‘heyday’ of the periptera could be pinpointed to the mid-century. In the 1950s and 60s, before telephones were common in households, many periptera boasted a rotary phone for its customers' use. By the 1970s, periptera had refrigerators, thereby expanding their offering to cold drinks and ice cream. Nearing into the 1980s, in the post-home phone but pre-mobile phone era, the periptero was where you might go to make a phone call that you didn’t want your family to hear.
And it’s all been downhill from there. Periptera are on their way out.
Below is a short timeline of successive periptera death knells:
1981: Greece enters the EU. The markets open up. Many of the original war veteran kiosk owners are aging, and in this heady economic haze, the licensing laws shift to allow owners to rent their kiosk to civilians.
1997: In an accidentally prophetic move, the original 1911 periptero on Panepistimiou street very abruptly sinks due to a nearby metro line construction accident. Τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.
2009: The Greek financial crisis begins. The ongoing recession forces the closure of thousands of periptera throughout Greece.
2010: This marks the beginning of a long series of anti-smoking laws in Greece, which includes increasing tax on cigarettes by ninefold, amounting to a total of 86%, one of the highest in the EU.
2012: Further legislative changes are made around smoking, including allowing small shops and some supermarkets to sell cigarette and tobacco products, thereby loosening the periptera’s monopoly on tobacco sales.
2014: The licensing laws change and periptera are now the responsibility of municipal governments. 70% of licenses are opened to the free market, while only 30% are reserved for disabled war veterans. A restriction on the permanent residence of holders is also lifted.
2015: The newly elected Syriza Government passes an Omnibus Bill that included a provision to shut down the periptera licenses. When a kiosk shuts down or an owner dies, the license can no longer be renewed or transferred.
2020: The Covid-19 Pandemic begins, and Greece introduces restrictive measures on periptero, including forcing them to close down at midnight.
2023: The New Democracy Government introduces a new law that enforces the requirement of POS (point of sale) machines in kiosks.
TODAY: Down from 18,000 in 2005, there are less than 5,000 periptera in Greece left today. In Athens, only 500 remain.3
By my count, we are 43 years into the periptera extinction event. A death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts.
Cultural erosion takes many forms: loss of language, loss of traditional food, loss of traditional architecture. When these signifiers are destroyed, we cut off our ability to access a collective identity, a sense of belonging and a sense of place. Particularity is essential. No one wants to live in a world of non-place airport lounges. Greece without periptera? This is scandalous, actually.
Who among us hasn’t experienced that acute, nostalgic pain of the destruction of a building they once loved? For me, it was the Lincoln Fields Mall, in Ottawa’s dreary west end, demolished in 2020 to make space for new condos. It was a hideous mall full of ghosts and failing businesses, but more importantly, it was where I bought my first album (High Voltage - AC/DC), where we skipped class to eat Subway at 11am, and where I went to obsess over an emotionally distant record store clerk with a concave chest (the first in a sad series to come). And so, when that sorry, stupid building was put out of its misery and razed to the ground, I felt a profound loss. Even though it had been years since I’d even stepped foot in there, I lost the potential to revisit my past.
Maybe we’re somewhat accustomed to seeing an individual building demolished, but much less so the destruction of an entire architectural form. This is unnatural and lamentable.
To be legislated out of existence is a death without dignity for the periptera.
They will undoubtedly fade away - in 30 years or so, 40 if we’re lucky. In this sad, slow fade, what becomes of the physical structures? Some will be torn down. Many already have. And many will be re-appropriated for new uses. But their form is so particular that it will no doubt be deceiving to see them used as something else. They will become the Pizza Huts of Greece. Architecture speaks even when you don’t want it to.
Fast forward to the year 2065. Your (half-robot) grandchildren have no concept of a periptero and its function. They may be able to conceive of the concept, but the architectural reality no longer exists. A universal without any particulars.
Perhaps we should take comfort in the wisdom of Heraclitus. Remember: Everything is in flux. Change is the only constant. We accept our ephemeral selves and keep moving forward.
But no. I refuse to embrace this philosophy. I stubbornly cling to the false hope that people, feelings, buildings, periptera, will stick around forever. I am susceptible to an unhealthy degree of nostalgia. Wherever I am, I got here too late. I’ve missed too much.
I think I'll take up smoking.
1 In Greek, peripter-O is the singular & peripter-A is the plural
2 For better or sometimes for worse: during the military junta, some peripterades acted as snitches - they were able to see what newspapers their customers were buying, who they were calling and what they were talking about. The surveillance side to the eyes on the street that Jane Jacobs failed to consider.
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