Holidaying in Athens, I wasn’t expecting to find myself wandering around an old gasworks. But there it was, featuring in most of the guide books left on the shelf of our apartment: Technopolis. It has, says the Rough Guide to Athens, been converted into “a stunning series of spaces for concerts and changing exhibitions”. Two of the old gas holders have been converted into offices, one of them for Athens 98.4FM! This was too good to be true: I had to go!
It was within walking distance and so off I set, after a hearty breakfast. First sight filled me with excitement and anticipation: the über-cool offices of the old gas holders.
I found my way to the gate, only to be met not by people in old gas uniforms or something, but by a couple of bored teenage Athenian girls in Santa hats. One of them stopped chewing gum long enough to shrug towards a battered wooden hut where, I was informed by a man with a huge fag hanging beneath a drooping moustache, Technopolis was closed as it was Monday.
I looked in through the gate. The venue had not been converted into “a stunning series of spaces for concerts and changing exhibitions” but instead into Christmas World, a dowdy bunch of busted carousels, bleak fairground games and grim lolly sellers.
Oh dear. I beat a retreat and decided to settle for something historic but less festive: the Acropolis, perhaps, or the Roman Agora. But my heart was set on Technopolis.
Two days later I returned, ready to jockey through the crowds of elf-eared carnies and lolly sellers. I went to the hut and paid my entrance fee, the laughably cheap sum of one euro, about $1.30. I even got a smart-looking ticket and a wee program.
The site itself is almost intact. It’s much smaller than Clyde Street, where I suppose land was cheaper and easier to come by. The Athens gasworks closed down in 1984, about a year or two after ours in Hamilton North.
The whole area around the gasworks is called Gazi because just about everyone either worked there or in an industry that depended on it. There’s nothing to say quite why it was preserved rather than being bulldozed and sold off as prime real estate, or whether there was a huge remediation project. But some group of people obviously thought that it was not just worth sparing but worth celebrating.
I pushed through the crowds of cheery, festive Athenians (about a dozen parents hauling strollers or being shouted at by their sugar-fuelled children) and made my way to the Washer-Scrubber Room.
This was a promising start: when I pushed through the door I was alone in there, and the sounds of Beyonce singing Christmas songs immediately faded into the distance. This was great! There was a display, and bottles of tar and naphtha, and working machines …
I learnt all about the gas-cleaning process, something I’ve puzzled about a fair bit but never been able to research with any real clarity. Here were all my answers – in Greek and English!
For example, the first impurity to be removed is the tar, then the naphthalene, then the ammonia. The tar is removed using the Pelouze-Audouin apparatus. The what? I hear you ask. Look no further: I have one right here:
From the Washer-Scrubber Room I strolled around the grounds, past the converted holders and the skeletal remains of another holder, roped off and glowering behind a fairground rocking boat. (In all the time I was there I did not once see this boat move back and forth, with or without a fee-paying passenger.)
Next to the dead holder was an admin building, temporarily converted into a Lolly Factory. Much as I’m sure Greek lollies are very delicious I didn’t go in. I’m not so much of a snob that I wouldn’t be happy if our admin building was a Lolly Factory – at least it’d be being used.
The final and main room was the Old Retorts. It looked like everything in there could be started up again tomorrow if needs be.
The crisis that’s hit Greece means that many parts of public buildings are closed or unstaffed. This can be frustrating but here it meant that I could wander the place alone and unmolested. None of the ladders on the equipment had barriers and so it was possible to climb up and around the gangways 10 metres above the concrete. If this was Britain and the National Trust I’d have had a dozen JobsWorths on my back but here I could do what I wanted.
At the eastern end of the building was an “educational section”; that is, a few hard benches and three little stools. That should keep the kiddies quiet.
A screen played three short videos on loop, films made in the Second World War and its immediate aftermath of the gasworks in operation, with short pieces on the workers and their lives. It was tough, primitive manual work. The scene below is of a funeral of a worker, his body carried without coffin or shroud, his colleagues bearing him on their shoulders as a drummer and a bagpiper led the procession out into Gazi.
I wandered towards the inevitable gift shop. They had gasworks mugs and I thought I’d treat myself but, of course, the shop was closed because the staff had been diverted to “other duties as required” (wearing Santa hats and elf ears).
I was left with mixed feelings: heartened that someone had the foresight to preserve this remarkable piece of industrial heritage; saddened that the Greek economic crisis had reduced it to hosting Christmas World rather than the hoped-for “stunning series of spaces for concerts and changing exhibitions”.
But it did give me a glimpse into what might have been for our wee corner of the energy-producing world. Even if we’d just hung onto the naphtha tower!
The last remnant of what happened on Clyde Street is the admin building: I’d be happy to see it being used as a Lolly Factory if that at least meant it had a function.
I went back into the Old Retort building and watched the videos loop once more, and as I watched the piper and drummer I felt rather like they were piping and drumming for Hamilton North’s industrial past.
Am I being melodramatic? Maybe, but I’m in Athens, so give me a break. If I can’t imagine tragedy here then where can I?
Hear it now, on pipes and drums, the sad lament of lost Hamilton North.