Kolonaki, a transformed Athenian square

A young woman is reading. She is sitting on one of the semicircular benches in a raised section of the newly refurbished Kolonaki Square. She seems to be alone in a tranquil place. That single image shows how the refurbishment has achieved one of its aims, providing oases of privacy in a busy area. Little nooks to either side of the square’s core look as if they are in another place. Who remembers the old square? Though some miss it (one wonders why) it is true that the debate about a new public space is a healthy reaction. It has been a while since we last saw Athenians divided about a public area. The fate of Omonia Square did not trigger disagreements but a general outcry. Kolonaki fared differently. Scarcely had it been unveiled when local residents spoke of it disparagingly to the television cameras, but more people have come to understand what those who use the square everyday see in it. Many were dissatisfied by what they saw as an excessive use of concrete, while others could not see the need to change an area that was so much a part of the way the city operates. Reactions to the new look arose from the nature of Kolonaki itself. Some residents feel the square belongs to them, not to Athens. That extremely inward-looking, conservative attitude has no basis in reality, since Kolonaki has been a crossroads with a more than local flavor for decades. The architects It is precisely this dual character of Kolonaki that the architects of the project, Dimitris and Susanna Antonakakis, wanted to emphasize. Their guided tour of the square narrates an adventure of ideas, the crystallization of years of thinking about what a contemporary public space means in a city like present-day Athens. Looking at the square from top to bottom, one has to admit that the space has been organized. There is an order to the pathways and a freedom that comes from the division of the square into three zones. Additional greenery creates a sense of peace. There’s less noise. The sound of the water has a calming effect. There’s a definite theatrical element. Can urban poetry come from concrete, marble and granite? «There’s a campaign against concrete,» say the architects, speaking of that misunderstood material. «It’s a matter of how it is processed.» They cite the case of Kyriakos Krokos and his highly regarded work on the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki with obvious use of concrete. And indeed, the concrete in the newly refurbished square is gentle and has plasticity. The prefabricated elements, many of which involve new benches, are colored, reinforced concrete. Deep red and umber were added to the mix to give it the reddish-brown color of rust. This «natural blend» say the architects, «makes it look like the earth,» and in the future it will mellow further as the new trees, shrubs and aromatic plants grow to form alleys and atmospheric corners. It is a modern square, not the typical neighorhood version with a few benches scattered around. And how could it be? The architects are democratic intellectuals who have been a dynamic presence on the Greek architecture scene since the 1960s. They have offered a personal interpretation of an urban square for the 21st century and though, as they themselves say, they were surprised by the vehemence of the initial opposition, they are now participating in the public discussion, defending a project that absolutely represents them. «It is a square that has theatrical and surreal elements,» they say. If you stand on the bridge on Patriarchou Ioakeim and look down toward Vassillissis Sofias Avenue, you’ll see the detour – a coveted pathway toward the Benaki Museum and National Gardens. «We have linked Kolonaki to the National Gardens by a pathway of red stone cubes of porphyry and granite,» they say, «while the waters rising from the jets and small cataracts is a reminder of Dexameni.» This creates a notional continuity from Lycabettus to the National Gardens through the square which, contrary to what some critics believe, now contains more plants. «Many new trees – olive trees, cypresses, plane trees, acacias and an almond tree – were planted in the children’s playground. We also laid emphasis on aromatic plants such as lavender and rosemary,» which form a fragrant green carpet. Most of the trees are thriving; those that have not done well in their new environment will be replaced. History preserved Kolonaki Square, whose official title is Filikis Etaireias Square, will continue to deserve that name as well. The removal of busts of Xanthos and Anagnostopoulos sparked objections. They have been removed for conservation work and will be replaced in a different position, facing Koumbari Street, close to the historic kolonaki or «little column» which, however, has not yet been restored. That is the responsibility of the archaeologists. As we walk over the bridge with the marble parapet with Skoufa Street to our rear, Susanna Antonakaki says, «We want to include some small artworks in the bridge, perhaps made of bronze, bearing the insignia of the Filikis Etaireia, which would give a discreet nod to its history.» The marble parapet above the cave with the cataracts converses with the designs of the balconies on the mansion opposite, on Patriarchou Ioakeim and Skoufa. The headless bronze statue of G. Georgiadis which once dominated Patriarchou Ioakeim will be re-sited in a more discreet location and on a lower pedestal.