Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Greek Lifts

Vertical living is very much a part of life in almost any Greek city. The population rush from country to town during the latter part of the twentieth century put immense pressure on places such as Thessaloniki. The answer was to build high-rise apartment blocks, and it was thus with undisguised glee that the developers of the 1960’s addressed the delightful exercise of filling their pockets with enormous amounts of money at minimal expense. Apartment-ville had arrived.

Initially the inclusion of a personnel lift in apartment development plans, if indeed such plans existed, seemed an unwarranted expense. But realisation dawned upon these fly-by-night entrepreneurs that it was not easy to sell an eighth floor apartment that could only be accessed by a staircase. And so the lift became a necessity. The architectural challenge was to fit this awkward vertical column into the building without losing too much valuable real estate. Lifts are therefor exceedingly small, inevitably confined to slightly obscure dark corners, and as a result rather smelly. Furthermore they have most certainly not been designed to complement their surroundings.

The rather more upmarket apartment block entrances in downtown Thessaloniki were designed to impress their parvenu clientele. They therefore boast marble walls, perhaps some mosaic decoration and a large gilded mirror or two. There might be an ornate commissionaire’s desk, and a rack of dark oak carved pigeonholes awaiting communications of business and love. This was of course but an architectural ideal, and was soon overtaken by the practicalities of usage. There was no money for the commissionaire, the mosaic was done on the cheap, so started to ‘moult’ chips within a couple of years. The marble remains solidly intact, but the post pigeonholes stare out blankly and longingly, awaiting just one letter that would justify the expense of their installation. The post is left lying helplessly upon some latter-day installed cheap shelf where it is irregularly sifted by passing residents. The resulting heaps of unrecognised mail, glossy brochures advertising take away meals, and unrequited delivery slips, gaze blankly at the ceiling or slide, unwanted, to the floor.

But into this original concept of an elegant and imposing entrance there had to be fitted an uncompromisingly utilitarian element, the lift. Sometimes it was indeed an afterthought, in which case a degree of understanding can be extended to the necessary reorganisation of the stairwell. But since 1970 there really has been no such excuse as from then on the lift was firmly established as an integral part of the development, if not the design. But architects did not, understandably, welcome the harsh aesthetic offered by this device, so the wretched little orifice of the metal door had to be hidden somewhere, preferably at the back of the foyer, looped lovingly within the embrace of a stone staircase. Sometimes it is necessary to ascend to a mezzanine level in order to find the darn thing, for the interior designer would want nothing to detract from his vision of a grand staircase leading enticingly into the heart of his supposedly elegant building. But even then there was an overwhelming compunction to hide that bleak exterior with its prison-door window giving a frosted glimpse of the lighted cell within.

It therefore takes time, and not a little persistence, to locate the object of your ascending desire and to stab hard, probably several times at the unresponsive call button. There is a wayward streak amongst the system designers of lift electronics that no doubt has them gripping their sides with mirth after a hard day in the development lab. The pressing of the call button sets in motion a series of unplanned and unexpected events that involves the lift passing your entry point on at least one occasion before finally coming to rest with a chirpy ‘ping’. At this stage you must act with determination and haste. Do not expect the lift door to open for you, instead you must grab it before the lift realises that it has made serious error in acceding to your wishes and decides to take itself off to the seventh floor where it can skulk unmolested by would-be users.

Most likely there will be a step to negotiate, either up or down depending upon the lifts proclivity of the day. It would seem that the elementary process whereby you set a lift to stop precisely at the level of the intended floor is either totally beyond the capabilities of Greek lift designers, or simply another little joke from the repertoire of those that laughingly call themselves lift service engineers. Do not be alarmed! It is unlikely that, once having stopped within a few hundred millimeters of the precise level, the lift will take it into its head that it should correct itself; unlikely, but not impossible.

The lift will be small, that is small in the sense of microscopic. No self-respecting dog would accept a kennel of such limited floor area. This then is no place to develop claustrophobia, indeed I cannot see how claustrophobics could exist above the second floor of a Greek apartment block. Should you be intending to travel upwards with a companion then the experience will be disgustingly or delightfully intimate, depending upon your joint relationship. Clearly the manufacturers of lifts realize that they are offering a spatially challenged environment and, in an attempt to alleviate the situation, have taken to installing mirrors that may grace one complete side of the lift. You therefore have the dubious pleasure of watching a reflection of yourself, and possibly your companion, as you rise or fall through the building.

It will no doubt come as a shock to those from abroad to discover that there is no inner door. The outer door will swing shut and you will find yourself staring in a rather puzzled way at its nether side. Do not worry. Brace yourself and hit the button for the floor you want. You may have to do this once or twice more before, with a despairing leap skywards, the lift decides it might as well take some vague notice of the electronic command. Now at this stage it is highly advisable on safety grounds to shrink back towards the rear of the lift. You may wish to do this in a nonchalant manner so as not to alarm your companion, especially if he or she is a Greek Lift Virgin. The reason for such action is that the lift will now be travelling at speed, well not much speed, more of a trundle, but the forward face of the lift, being bereft of anything even remotely door-like is now giving access to what in relative terms is a rapidly descending blank wall. There is nothing, except your sense of self-preservation, to stop you from reaching out and touching this inner face of the lift shaft. A further word of warning here. Some lifts are devilishly designed to debouche their occupants both front and rear. It is therefor quite possible that the ‘back’ of the lift will also be an open aperture with the shaft wall moving relative to you!

The experience is moderately interesting. If nothing else you will get a fairly good idea of the construction materials employed in the building of your apartment block. On slightly more upmarket shafts the walls are lined with metal. This gives poster stickers and graffiti artists a better substrate. I suppose they push the ‘STOP’ button between floors in order to ply their trade, I would however advise against this – not the creative graffiti bit you understand, but the stopping of the lift between floors. It may take a perverse liking to the location and decide to take up residence there.

At some stage in the fairly recent past it seemed that the Greek government had turned the corner and become safety conscious to the extent that they passed legislation obliging all lift owners to fit inner doors. There was hardly a flurry of activity. There is little heed taken here of legislative matters of this ilk, indeed I am not aware of any inner doors being fitted to existing lifts although they became rather more common on new ones. No one was indicted for failing to comply with the law, except the Minister responsible for the drafting of it who, so it transpired, had a controlling interest in the manufacturing company that sold inner doors to lift companies. I am not sure if the law has ever repealed. It is perhaps best described as ‘inactive legislation’.

When you arrive at your intended floor, or perhaps I should say ‘if the floor you have arrived at is your intended one’, then all you have to do is to push hard against the outer door and you are debouched into a dark corridor. I mean dark in the sense that there is likely to be no light whatsoever. There will be, somewhere more or less opposite you, a light push switch. It is not easy to find although some nowadays glow with LED satisfaction. Be careful. It is very easy to mistake a doorbell for a light-push. This leads to Angry Words with owners of said doorbell who are thus disturbed from their cooking, snoozing, eating, or such other private activities as they may be indulging in.

However thanks to Greek builders who watched too many 1970’s American movies our lift has one more trick up its sleeve. There are certain whole-floor apartments where the lift opens directly into the flat rather than have you access it by means of such a corridor. Under these circumstances the lift door does not open when you push it. This provides a certain frisson of excitement to the lift experience. If you are a visitor then the situation is quite simple. You should find a small bell-push set into the outer door and a shove on this will, with any luck, alert your host to open the imprisoning door for you from inside the flat. Should the bell not ring or should your host tarry a while before attending to you, then the lift is prone to tire of standing still and will no doubt decide to wander off to other floors taking you with it.

If you are the occupier of the apartment and are arriving at your door by means of the lift then you need to have your wits about you. No doubt you will have a key, either a simple latchkey or one of those over-sophisticated four-turn security affairs. Be sure to have it at the ready before your lift pauses at your apartment door. ‘Pauses’ is without doubt the correct word. You have a matter of seconds within which you must act. If you fail to engage the key then the lift is still ‘live’ and will happily respond to any summons from a different floor. Only by inserting your key can you be sure that the lift will not depart just as you finally push open your flat door.

Departure from such an apartment is fraught with further complication and as a prophylactic measure I would advise that you hold the key of the door in your hand as you enter the lift, for there is a very strong likelihood the lift will stubbornly refuse to budge once you have entered it. Once the door has closed upon you, you will press the button for your desired destination, and with any luck the lights will stay on. The lift however will not be for moving. Having capriciously moved when you never asked it to, it is now in ‘stay put mode’. This is where the key comes in. You need the reactions of a Formula One driver to overcome the problem. Very cautiously insert your key. You may have to wriggle it around a little but do not turn it. There is some intricate relationship, known only to lift engineers, that connects key-in-keyhole to lift movement. At some stage, just when you assume that nothing is going to happen, the lift will lurch downwards. Now you act! If you do not whip the key out in a millisecond or two your grasp upon it will be lost, you will be whisked inexorably downwards at some speed whilst the still-projecting key will be macerated by the top bar of the lift as it passes to the next floor.

I would not like to leave the impression that no lifts have inner doors. Some do. Indeed both inner and outer doors come in the most wonderful variety of styles, some striving for elegance, some for functionality, whilst others simply want to impress. There are hidden gems amongst the 1950’s apartment blocks of Thessaloniki, places where even the most intrepid would never to venture without local knowledge and, for preference, a local guide. Thus I found myself being led by my friend, Christina, into a slightly shabby apartment block somewhere a few blocks northwest of Kamara. The lift was in the its usual secluded place, at the very back of the foyer and set at right angles to the incoming visitor, just in case it could be discovered too easily. Christina opened the white metal lattice door of what might have, in different circumstances, been a secure dog kennel, or perhaps a barrier against a ferocious animal in a zoo. Instead it gave upon a secondary door of some beauty. It was a deep red mahogany, also boasting a metal grill, but smaller and of a much more refined design than its outer colleague.

“Ella,” she said, and I went in after her.

There was barely room for the two of us in the almost pleasing interior. She shut the inner door, and suddenly my world changed. That which had been an innocuous, indeed mildly inviting structure, became a fortified jail. The confined cell, the small barred window, the gloom and the lack of any form of door handle left me in little doubt that we were now imprisoned

I nodded rather feebly, and not without trepidation, to Christina’s suggestion that I might like to experience the workings of this lift. She punched the fourth button of an exquisitely small panel. I wedged myself into the back left hand corner of the ‘asanser mode’ expecting brutal treatment from this prison of the 1950’s. The lift however rose silently and obediently to the third floor.

I glanced at my guide. From what I could see in the dim light she had a faraway look in her eyes. She was once again that imaginative five-year old experiencing the trauma of a solitary journey with but little hope of escape. But these were the horrors of yesteryear. Today she hit the lowest button and without demure this ancient cab returned us to street level and to some degree of equanimity.

Clearly the Greek lift is not a vehicle suitable for moving house. Its size, weight restriction and general attitude to working order make it impractical when it comes to shifting pianos, sideboards and the like. Such furniture moving is accomplished by the deployment of an almost infinitely extendable elevator platform that rises from a lorry parked in the road down below. Such simplicity, speed and safety would be more than satisfactory were these attributes to be found in the design and operation of the internal lift.


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