Asia Minor refugee settlement to be preserved

Outside the Byzantine walls of Thessaloniki, an 80-year-old refugee neighborhood will be in the vanguard of a new approach to our architectural and historical heritage. The refugee quarter in the municipality of Sykies, perched on a steep slope, is being included in a municipal initiative to highlight architectural history. This humble part of 20th century Thessaloniki is a model of the city’s refugee-built architecture. Unconventional The project of saving and highlighting the settlement in such a way as to retain its residential character comes at a time when Thessaloniki has already lost a large part of its refugee inheritance (just as Athens has). In other words, salvaging this settlement, which backs onto the Byzantine wall, inside an archaeological site (and with the approval of the Central Archaeological Council) is an unconventional development for Greece. In a single move, it will catapult what was until recently a condemned quarter of the city into the future. This part of Thessaloniki, which was once inhabited by refugees, was well on its way to extinction, and some residents had already left. But when most of the land came back into the possession of the municipality of Sykies, some people started looking at the issue in a different light. Making the most of opportunities which arose in 1999 when Thessaloniki was cultural capital of Europe, the municipality announced a Panhellenic architectural competition which it named «Cultural Neighborhood.» European funding As time passed, the notion matured and the municipality improved on its original concept, eventually coming to support full preservation of the settlement and at the same time securing European funding. The architectural proposal recently submitted to the municipality of Sykies supports preservation not only of the houses but also of the outdoor and partially covered areas. Architects Pelagia Astreinidou and Maria Constantoglou will bring life back to this small neighborhood, ensuring functions, uses and vital spaces. The two architects documented the settlement in detail, discovering significant architectural elements in the process. These aspects include «trellises, glass partitions, garden gates, footpaths and connecting elements, which had either fallen into disuse or were not readily visible,» explains Astreinidou. From among the soil and the vegetation, disparate and improvised aesthetic solutions, a world with roots deep in the recent past emerged. The often scorned heritage of the refugees (117,000 of whom had arrived in Thessaloniki by 1928), used to be seen as inferior if not cheap. In time, it fell to rack and ruin. Not that all of it ought to be preserved, but much that was worthwhile has already been lost. Architect Vilma Hastaoglou, associate professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, reminds us that «of the three major refugee markets, the Vardario market has made way for a modern multistory edifice; the fruit and vegetable market on Aghiou Dimitriou Street is no longer in use, is unprotected, and at risk of being built over; while preservation of the second-hand goods market, the Bit Bazaar, has been left up to the storeowner’s voluntary initiative.» Of the dozens of refugee settlements from the 1920s, very little has been preserved. Constructed with cheap materials and by improvised methods – as dictated by the need to survive – these dwellings were incorporated into the city and mistreated. Eventually, they collapsed. That is why this small but compact settlement in Sykies is such a rare thing, a tiny town which can come back to life again, this time offering good living conditions. 263 plant types Given that Sykies, like all neighboring municipalities, has been densely built up, the existence of this little township on the city walls is like an aesthetic parenthesis. It is also a place of protection for the rare flora that grow on the walls of Thessaloniki. Studying all the phases of this refugee settlement, Kiki Kafkoula, honorary professor at the Aristotle University, comments: «In private gardens and public areas, there is also exceptionally dense, mature vegetation, of great environmental and ecological interest. Perhaps it is not widely known that a study by Thessaloniki University found 263 different types of self-sown plants on the walls of Thessaloniki, many of which have disappeared from the rest of the city.» Positive precedent The prospect of mild but decisive intervention in this settlement, its inclusion in the contemporary life of Thessaloniki and, above all, its being taken out of the shadows and into the light, creates a positive precedent for dealing with the cultural heritage in Greece. Athens has a lot to learn from the model of the Sykies municipality.

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