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Reclaiming and reviving Omonia

It’s a square that has suffered dozens of changes and mutations. And since the last changes were completed seven months ago, Omonia is less like a square than ever – a platform, at the heart of a gray city, a place that repels rather than attracts passers-by and seems more an extension of the surrounding roads. After fierce criticism was leveled at the changes, talk began on how to correct them. In this article, architect and planner Alexandros Tripodakis, former deputy mayor of Athens and former deputy chairman of EAXA (Unification of the Archaeological Sites of Athens), proposes ways of reclaiming the square as a place for real contact and public life via a light raised construction that could return the square to its unifying role in the center of the city. At the same time, he responds to the criticism of architectural competitions which was sparked by Omonia’s latest makeover. The storm of criticism which greeted the delivery of the new Omonia Square to the Athens public legitimately posed two key questions in view of the new proposals expected from the three-member committee of the Ministry of Planning (YPEHODE) and the Athens Municipality: What are the chief problems? And what means exist to deal with them, taking into account the various existing architectural, legal and economic commitments and the looming deadline of August 2004? The main problems can be summed up as follows: First, reclaiming Omonia Square and turning it into a proper communal space that would encourage people to stop and stay. As a huge horizontal surface surrounded by heavy traffic, today it has the inhospitable character of a passageway. Second, redressing the lack of an organic relationship between the square and Athinas Street, Kotzia Square and the Acropolis, with the square’s southern side as its main aspect. And third, turning the whole area of a major city landmark worthy of its name and its role in the city’s design and history. As for the last aspect, the area’s size should be emphasized. Omonia is squarish, with dimensions of 120m x 120m. Its perimeter consists of buildings of various shapes and sizes (both neoclassical and postwar), with heights ranging from 15 to 35 meters. This vast area, which is diminished by heavy traffic on its edge, does not allow for low surface structures to fully bring out its features, which are in danger of being drowned by its noisy and chaotic environs. Low structures would not solve the other two problems. Connecting it in dynamically with Athinas Street and Kotzia Square would require radical revisions to the prize-winning proposal, with the designers’ permission, as well as radically different traffic arrangements (which have proved wholly unfeasible). Tall plants to create conditions that encourage people to stop and stay must also be ruled out, due to the inability of the surface layer to bear them. For these reasons, what is needed is a bold, large-scale change, which would play the necessary unifying role and render the square recognizable as a special, unique and distinct whole within the maelstrom of the metropolis. I believe that an effective and feasible project which is proportionate to the scale of the area could only be realized through a raised level, in the form of a light, suspended structure. This would involve a total of six large movable covers, of increasing length, which would create surfaces of 10m x 60m. They would be positioned three by three, at different levels, on either side of the axis created by Athinas-Tritis Septemvriou streets, thus creating a free passage from one end to another. Starting at around 15 meters on the northern side of the square (Tritis Septemvriou), they would slope upward to 20-25 meters on the side where Pireos, Athinas and Stadiou streets end. A covering that is light, flexible and at the same time modern and dynamic would, I believe: 1. Decisively and impressively solve the problem of turning the square into a city landmark, visible from a distance along the six large roads which converge on it. With suitable lighting, it could also offer a phantasmagoric and transmutating spectacle (like that of the huge dome at the Berlin Sony Center) during the hours of darkness as well. 2. Provide flexible protection against sunlight for the square since the suspended shades would be movable, and for various uses of the square depending on season and the hour of day (concerts, festivals, exhibitions, cultural events, meetings, etc). 3. Allow the dynamic integration of the square with Athinas, Stadiou and Pireos streets, underscoring its orientation from north to south, the intense difference between the two sides of the square and the huge importance of the Sacred Rock (Acropolis) which it will literally look toward (see cross section, view from above and sketch). 4. Enable the preservation of the prize-winning architectural design and its minimalist character, complementing all its functional weaknesses rather than making major changes to an already costly project (the budget came to over 2 billion drachmas) that was just completed. 5. It would highlight the symbolic character of Omonia Square as a place where the peoples that compose the new multicultural Athens coexist, since: a) As a structure suspended in air, it symbolizes the high and spiritual, in contrast to the earthly works below that of necessity have a more static and mundane feel. b) As a cover, it expresses the idea of a shelter and protection, while as a light and easily movable membrane, it hints at flexibility, toleration and plurality. c) Finally, and possibly more powerful symbolically, its division into two large, rising sloping surfaces is a reference to huge abstract wings lightly spread over this vital core of the capital, suggesting significant associations with the fundamental, civilizational values of peace and freedom. Alexandros D. Tripodakis is an architect-planner, former deputy mayor of Athens and former deputy chairman of EAXA.