CULTURE

Architecture on the forefront

A major architectural and social issue, that of handling modern architectural heritage, has come to the fore in the city of Ioannina. A kafeneio (traditional Greek cafe) housed in the building designed by architect Aris Constantinidis, which has been known for 32 years as the Oasis in Ioannina, is being rented to a private company that plans to modernize it. The company’s plans alter Constantinidis’s vision and reveal the shallow attitude that many have toward their architectural landmarks, either due to ignorance or indifference. This is rather a complex matter, as many people in the city have already taken up protest in opposition to the project, mainly the Epirotikos Agon newspaper, the Epirus office of the technical high schools and the Ioannina Municipality, all of whom are asking for a less commercial approach to a building that few people understood and even fewer loved. The issue is still pending, because a decision on whether to declare the Oasis as a listed building has yet to be announced. The paradox is that the Sixth Ephorate of Contemporary Monuments, which includes Ioannina in its jurisdiction, initially approved the proposals by the company that has undertaken the management of Oasis, while a request to declare the building listed, by the same ephorate to the Ministry of Culture, is still pending. Why are they not waiting for the Ministry of Culture’s decision, whatever that might be, before going through with any restoration plans? At the same time the Oasis is being handed over to be gutted, examination of the file for its protection is pending! The Society of Architects castigates this ironic, yet unfortunately not unique, case, in a letter addressed to Mayor of Ioannina Nikos Gondas and in an announcement send to Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos, dated July 24, 2003. The society points out the building’s importance for the city: «The need to re-evaluate this issue derives both from the importance of this particular architectural composition and from its location. The Oasis building is situated in the middle of Ioannina Sq and the relations with its surroundings are of great importance, as they concern the city’s image. The Municipality of Ioannina has announced plans to unify the city center, a decision that might provide a good opportunity to redefine the city’s public space, since unification plans concern the area from the main square to Litharitsia. Constantinidis’s two buildings in Ioannina, namely the Oasis and the Ioannina Archaeological Museum, could become major points of reference in the city’s public areas.» What is beneficial for the city? Although seemingly a simple question, this has led to such confusion that it is apparent that different social groups have different criteria. The case of the Oasis indicates that Ioannina cannot make long-term investments, something that also applies to almost all Greek cities. Most Greek cities were destroyed, mainly after 1970, following the examples set by Athens and Thessaloniki. Similarly, in this case, the easy solution of quick cash seems to be what is opted for. Unfortunately, from an architectural viewpoint, Ioannina does not have much to show today, apart from its protected zones. It boasts a beautiful building built between the two world wars by the Macedonian architect Aristotelis Zachos, the Zosimaia, which could be described as art nouveau in the Epirote style. The postwar period can only be proud of Constantinidis’s two buildings, the Archaeological Museum built in 1965 and Oasis, built in 1971. Ioannina does not reflect its urban tradition and its prosperity, which began in the early 19th century, if not earlier. Anarchy and aesthetic abuse are not, of course, limited to the city of Ioannina, but this city especially, as the capital of Epirus, due to its history and cultural tradition, should make good contemporary architecture its priority. The city, including the municipality, the prefecture, the businessmen and the university, should try to create the architectural expression of the early 21st century so as to leave it as heritage to later generations. When one walks around the city, one notices some interesting newer buildings that are now part of Ioannina: buildings like the Tourist Kiosk and the Society for Epirote Studies by Vassilis Harisis, known for his neo-folk style; the modern building of the Bank of Greece, situated opposite the Archaeological Museum; the moving and daring architectural suggestions of Giorgos Parlapas and the buildings recently constructed by Vakis Manekas, well-known for his particular style. Those who knew the Oasis in its prime would like to see some function for it worthy of Constantinidis’s modern building. Maybe these people are right. To understand the simplicity and the enduring quality of Constantinidis’s ascetic vision, one needs to have the necessary equipment, ranging from the seats to the quality of the services. To reveal the clarity of modernism, we need clean lines and bareness, what we would today call minimalism. We need to bring to the surface what already exists instead of adding external elements. The things that matter are nature (the trees) which emphasize continuation, semi-outdoor areas that function as an extension of the architecture as well as restricting the building’s height. A peculiar combination of the modern and the traditional The Oasis was built in 1971, at a time when Ioannina had both traditional and modernist tendencies. «Until the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s there was an interesting coexistence of modernism and local tradition in Ioannina,» says architect Dimitris Hadziagapoglou who is from Ioannina but practices in Athens. «There were some interesting modernist interventions from both the public and the private sector. The Oasis is a misunderstood and neglected building.» The Oasis, despite being a typical modernist creation, maintained the atmosphere of an old kafeneio, hence creating a paradox of appearance and function. It was never recognized as a modernist place and maybe that was why its decline was almost inevitable. Today when Ioannina seeks to establish its role in the new century, the city must re-evaluate its architectural wealth and also treat it as a wealth-producing device. The few good buildings that remain must become the city’s pride. The Epirotikos Agon newspaper stated the following in an open letter addressed to the minister of culture on July 22: «The traditional Oasis is disappearing. It hides behind and under the ‘majestic’ modernist construction and is being subjected to alterations which its creator never intended: Staircases are being added; a terrace is operating; the roof and the numerous metallic pillars dominate, while the building’s relations to its surroundings are changing.» The Oasis must be integrated into the social life of Ioannina in a smooth and truly modern way. If the city wants to win Constantinidis’s Oasis, it must encourage good architecture, which is needed for true and enduring prosperity.