Great expectations for changes in urban public spaces are dashed

In 1998, when EAXA held European competitions for Athens’s four major squares, there was no hint of what was to come. In fact, the feeling was prevalent that something was finally about to change. As EAXA was set up by two ministries (of Culture and that of the Environment and Public Works), people were persuaded that because of the 2004 Olympics, the Greek State was now ready to look at urban public spaces in a different way; the decades-long, negative relationship was to be re-established on a different basis. There was the general feeling that Athens could not hold the Olympics burdened by entangled interests, arbitrary, illegal construction and opportunism. It was time to get serious and give up the old ways. EAXA, headed by Yiannis Kalantidis, an architect and close collaborator of the late Antonis Tritsis (who served as environment and public works minister as well as Athens mayor), soon gave rise to great expectations. When EAXA’s role was clarified (with a wider brief than originally planned and going beyond the unification of archaeological sites), it had to give expression to the hopes of a city that was begging for attention. The successful outcome of the four architectural competitions renewed these expectations. The choices for the top awards were a surprise, going mainly to young architects. For the first time, Athens’s public spaces would be in the hands of a younger generation of architects who had until then been kept on the sidelines because of their age. The design for Omonia Square was enthusiastically received by the media and symbolized what appeared to be a new age. It was followed by the prize for Monastiraki with the controversial multicolored mosaic inspired by young designers. The results of the competitions for Syntagma and Koumoundourou (or Eleftherias Square, as it is also called) simply confirmed the adoption of a new approach. The stale provincialism of Klafthmonos or Kaningos squares represented the nightmare that we all would have forgotten about in a few years’ time. We were dreaming of high-tech benches, minimalist arches, video walls, relentless modernism. We might not become another Barcelona (why should we, anyway?) but at least we would try. The attempt was made, but was abandoned in midstream. The Central Archaeological Council refused to agree to the designers’ multicolored stone mosaic in Monastiraki; the final choice is extremely conventional (Pelion or Karystos flagstones) as can be seen on neighborhood streets. In Syntagma Square, now that the traffic study has been modified and the ambitious unification of the square with Ermou Street abandoned, efforts are under way to use granite instead of marble for the paving. In Omonia, there have been three basic changes. First of all, the idea of ground lighting in the center of the square has been abandoned, as has the direct communication with the ticket area in the underground station; yet this play of light had been one of the most popular elements in the study. The video wall and the shelter originally planned for right behind the «grandstand» have also been done away with. As a result, the prism construction, with a surface of flowing water, is likely to be shortened by about a meter, according to Kalantidis. Other shelters which were to protect the entrances to the metro have also been removed from the plan. Additions include a sculpture by Giorgos Zongolopoulos, not originally included, and plants in pots are to be scattered about the square, in accordance with a design by the Athens municipality’s parks and gardens department. By contrast, most of the winning design for Koumoundourou Square will in fact be realized, and work is to begin toward the end of March.

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