The transformation of Thessaloniki from 1912 to the present

When the Benaki Museum in Athens hosted the expansive exhibition on the architectural history of Thessaloniki in the 1912-2012 period, the catalog that was supposed to accompany it had not made it off the press. The show was on display in Thessaloniki through May 5 at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, where thankfully the publication was ready, and it is a detail that makes all the difference. To be fair, just a cursory glance at the catalog (published by University Studio Press) reveals what the delay and the fuss was all about.

Now I didn’t seen the exhibition in Thessaloniki, but friends there told me that they are also luckier in respect to the layout of the show. When I went to see it at the Benaki’s Pireos Street annex in Athens, I had a sense of claustrophobia, of a lot of material densely packed into less space than such an ambitious project merited. After all, the aim of the exhibition is to show all the fascinating changes that the city of Thessaloniki underwent, from a peripheral town during the Ottoman occupation, before the Greek army liberated it in 1912, to a dynamic urban center of contemporary Greece.

I personally cannot remember another publication of such ambition and meticulous research in Greece – and the kudos goes almost exclusively to architect, academic and historian Vassilis Kolonas, who earned his reputation in publishing from the work he did on Italian architecture in the Dodecanese, the history of the Army Pension Fund Megaron and the Greek architects of the Ottoman Empire. “A Hundred Years of Architecture: Thessaloniki 1912-2012” stands out for its systematic and exhaustive research into a plethora of archives and sources (with the help of architect Sotiria Alexiadou), which have yielded a treasure trove of material: designs (among which are those of French architect Ernest Hebrard [1881-1933], which were believed lost), scale models and photographs that reveal the sheer magnitude of construction that occurred in the city and the sometimes startling directions that the architecture pursued.

The fact is that our knowledge of Thessaloniki’s architecture is mostly drawn from just two or three chapters of its history (Hebrard, eclecticism, modernism), meaning that there are a lot of areas on which more light needs to be shed, which is exactly what Kolonas has tried to do.

What he teaches us, for example, is that almost every celebrated Athenian architect also made the trip up north. He also introduces us to the important local architect Constantinos Philippou. His greatest achievement, however, is untangling and presenting the different strands of the city’s huge transformation, something that no one else had managed in the past.

Kolonas begins his presentation with the impressions of the city gleaned by the diplomat Filippos Dragoumis and a correspondent for Estia newspaper in 1912, when the Greek army liberated the city from Ottoman rule in the First Balkan War. The material is then separated into three categories: the architecture of reconstruction (1912-40), postwar architecture (1947-78) and the city today (1978-2012).

The photographic material (of which there is some 20 percent more in the book than in the Athens exhibition) casts the buildings in the most flattering light possible, not to prettify Thessaloniki but to give a closer impression of what they would have looked like back when they were new. If there is one thing that readers may miss, it is a few more candid shots of life in the city over the decades to get a better feel of its pulse. But, after all, this is a publication on architecture and as such excels.

There is one such magnificent picture on Page 48, showing people milling about on the corner of Egnatia and Venizelou streets in the late 1950s.

Kolonas had to get to his fourth book before writing about the city where he was born, grew up and studied. Obviously he had his reasons.